The divergent trails of VNR tracking - Robin Londner reports on thequest for uniformity in tracking VNR viewership

Once upon a time, tracking video news releases was nearly

impossible. Postcards inquiring about airing details might be sent to

reporters or news directors, but they were returned about as often as

reporters call back to say they're not interested in a pitch. Several

VNR tracking methods have since emerged, but a lack of industry

uniformity in reporting audience results has clearly exasperated both

VNR companies and PR firms.

Sally Jewett, president of On The Scene Productions, says she recently

spoke with a client who claimed a previous satellite media tour (SMT)

had garnered 60 million viewers. The client expected similar results

from a new SMT. But when Jewett plugged the old SMT data into Nielsen

software, she got a figure closer to 175,000 viewers. This type of

confusion and misinformation ultimately hurts the entire industry.

Jewett isn't the only advocate of consistency. DS Simon Productions is

spearheading a campaign that advocates the use of standardized reporting

of project results.

There are currently two ways of tracking VNRs - encoding technologies

inserted in videotapes that are triggered when a release is played, and

scanning technologies that search television channels' closed-captioned

reports for keywords.

Sigma encoding and VEIL are the mostly widely used encoding

technologies. Sigma is a Nielsen product that uses an electronic

tracking signal recorded onto a videocassette. It tracks airplay when

any portion of a VNR is broadcast by networks or affiliates in the 211

television markets during the 26-week period following initial


VEIL encoding is marketed by Video Encoded Invisible Light Interactive

Technologies. The product was first patented in 1989, and was recently

upgraded to indefinitely track, collect and record where and when a

piece of video is aired in more than 100 markets.

A popular scanning option is Video Monitoring Service (VMS), which

records nearly 60,000 hours of news a month from more than 40 broadcast

and cable networks, as well as thousands of local newscasts in more than

100 markets.

Clients then receive summarized news stories and closed-captioned text

information from the company's news database.

Medialink was dissatisfied with commercial tracking offerings, so it

created another scanning option called NewsIQ. Subscribers create a

keyword for their company, competitor or topic, and then the service

tracks the text of 1,500 TV newscasts nationwide, representing more than

250 network stations and major markets.

PR agencies that subcontract VNR work find themselves in an

apples-to-oranges tangle of audience projections.

The fastest way to standardization may be for PR firms to demand

comparable numbers from VNR agencies pitching to become their prime


PRWeek asked VNR gurus at the nation's top PR agencies which measurement

methods they prefer, and what they would like to see in future.


Burson's Lisa Kovitz, managing director of the brand practice, advocates

the encoding method of VNR tracking. 'What would be a more foolproof way

of knowing where it was played?' she asks.

But she says budget often determines the tracking method used. Some VNR

producers charge extra for encoding and reporting, putting the final

price out of a client's reach. Kovitz recommends that clients use two or

three measurement tools if they can afford it. However, if she has to

choose one, she likes Sigma.

Kovitz says it's a professional responsibility to determine audience

size even if a client cannot afford a formal form of measurement.

'If you have a sister ad agency, you can work with them to get numbers

from Nielsen,' she says. 'I've called sales departments at news stations

to find out who watches the five o'clock news, ages 18 and over. But if

I were selling a product for people who were 50-plus, I'd want to know

that. Reports do not break that down, but if you need something, it's

your responsibility to figure it out.'

Despite obstacles, she thinks video is far more reliably measured than

print, though she adds that there are no guarantees in either


'There is no equivalent in print to the electronic bug you can put in

video,' says Kovitz. 'If the industry standards of Nielsen say a million

people watch the Today show, then a million people watch the Today


Yes, people will go to the bathroom during a newscast, but it's just

like recording the circulation of The New York Times. They know how many

people subscribe to the newspaper, but can they tell you how many people

read the national news on page 14 on a Sunday?'

Hill & Knowlton

Debbie Douglas, managing director of the media practice at the LA/Irvine

office, increasingly recommends that clients avoid VNRs in favor of

b-rolls, which TV stations can configure to fit different news shows.

However, monitoring remains an issue.

Douglas uses VMS in conjunction with Sigma encoding to track audience

numbers. She says VMS is her primary tool, and Sigma is her 'insurance

policy.' A recent Ford SMT illustrates her point: 'There were several

stations that aired the SMT live. Perhaps because of the China hostage

situation, other stations might have delayed airing it or might package

it into another story, and the Sigma encoding will say it ran at a later


Douglas says the extra cost of multiple monitoring services is necessary

because of the time and effort agencies expend to secure a placement.

She uses more than one tracking method because there is no perfect

system. Her dream monitoring service would begin with reports issued

within 24 hours of b-roll or VNR placement.

'With a quick report, I can immediately notify the client,' says


'I would also like a proactive service that comes to me every day with

updated placements. I don't want to call them every day.'

She says attention to detail is also a priority. Large clients may have

several campaigns running with different video for each. Douglas would

like to know mentions per client and per campaign.


Russell Grant, SVP and executive producer of media services at F-H, says

he doesn't dare dream of a perfect service, but suggests current

services fill what he sees as a large hole in coverage: all-news cable


'Cable news channels are increasingly commonplace,' says Grant. 'And

they've become a larger potential void for us to monitor potential

b-roll or VNR usage.'

Grant says he relies on the Nielsen ratings books and uses both VEIL and

Sigma to monitor all projects. VEIL wins especially high marks from

Grant because it allows him to monitor for months or years, in case a

station revisits its coverage of a product.

He also uses a new service, Power Television, for which he served as a

prelaunch product tester. The technology captures the closed-captioning

of a TV broadcast, and Grant says it's a good complement to encoding

methods. However, he is suspect of all monitoring systems based on


'You have to rely upon the station closed-captioning every portion of

the newscast, and we've found that some feature segments or media

segments we've done are not closed-captioned,' says Grant. 'Also, if

have you have a complicated search term, like a medical name, the

closed-captioning is only as good as the person spelling that name. A

misspelling might not necessarily be caught by Power TV unless you're

clever enough to guess at every phonetic possibility.'

Weber Shandwick Worldwide

James Korenchen, SVP for US broadcast services at Weber Shandwick, says

he knows he may be bucking an industry trend, but he thinks Nielsen

numbers should not always be the final word in audience measurement. He

advocates going straight to the source for estimates of audience


'We like to talk to the stations themselves,' says Korenchen. 'I feel we

get a fairly accurate audience figure from them, and we're continuing to

generate relationships with the producers of the stations.'

In addition to fostering contacts, Korenchen believes station numbers

are often more up-to-date than Nielsen numbers. He says VNRs are often

picked up in smaller markets where a national organization, like

Nielsen, may not be as diligent as a small player dedicated to the


'The station people know their own figures,' he says. 'They have more

research tools at the local level, and they know their market.'

Should station numbers conflict with Nielsen numbers, Korenchen says he

would discuss the differentiation with both Nielsen and the station.

Though Korenchen has never had a problem with figures not matching, he

still maintains that station research is more accurate.

While Korenchen is willing to invest time in station calls, he says

tracking is a budget-sensitive area with most clients. For higher

budgets, he recommends Sigma encoding. Costing roughly dollars 2,000,

Sigma is simply too expensive for some clients. For clients with tighter

budgets, Korenchen suggests using a VMS, which can be considerably less


Weber has no standard to track or measure a VNR audience, but Korenchen

would like to institute one. Currently decisions are up to each

individual agency team.

Eventually, Korenchen hopes the agency standard will be 'to obtain the

actual audience figure from the actual program in the actual market

during the time the segment actually ran.' General ratings may reflect

one particular broadcast, but getting audience numbers direct from the

station will correctly reflect the particular newscast on which a VNR

ran. He admits this will take a lot of work and phone calls, but he

believes it is the most precise audience measurement.

Edelman PR Worldwide

Michael Schriferl, SVP and director of media services, was so concerned

about accurate VNR tracking and audience recording that three weeks ago

he commissioned an analysis of Edelman b-rolls. He found that his staff

of 20 people pitching b-roll and VNRs to stations helps him zero in on

problems with different measuring systems.

'Let's say you get a fat media report that tells you your b-roll was

used,' he says. 'But at the same time, a research piece was published

about breast cancer. So some people used your footage because it

included generic footage of a woman getting a mammogram. Our client

might not even be mentioned, but the encoding would be perfectly correct

in that stations did indeed use our footage, but the encoding won't know

that our client was not part of the station's story.'

Looking at closed-captioned reports might show the context problem, but

Schriferl says his staff would have a sense of the discrepancy long

before. He maintains personal pitches are essential to knowing the

quantity and quality of your VNR airplay.

Edelman doesn't have an agency-wide standard, but the media services

group always reports in Nielsen numbers, using the latest data it has.

It also always encodes with Sigma and often adds VEIL as a backup for a

more in-depth look. Encoding results are cross-referenced with closed

captioning services NewsIQ and VMS to learn more about the content of

airings. Schriferl is careful to report story usage, explaining to

clients the context in which the tape or parts of the tape were


'We could have someone in every market watching television 24 hours a

day, but that's not feasible,' says Schriferl. 'There's a lot of debate

(about this issue) in the world of advertising and PR, but we use

Nielsen because they provide us with reports closer to the actual

ratings period. Something like Bacon's might update once a year, but

seven times year for every 15 minutes of the day, Nielsen gives us a


Next to having the ability to track b-roll on the Internet, Schriferl's

greatest wish would be to have immediate tracking reports for a

broadcast's actual numbers.

'I would love to know when there is an audience swing in news,' he says.

'For example, when the OJ Simpson verdict was read several years ago,

maybe that night the news viewership really spiked. But that blip isn't

going to show up in a daily Nielsen report. You are comparing apples to

apples when you compare Nielsen numbers, but you're still relying on the

most recent set of data, which could be changed for myriad reasons and

may be different the night people watched that video or saw that



Conus Communications

Top VNR for 2000: SPAM JAM for Weber-Shandwick client Hormel, details

summer festival in Austin, MN, to celebrate SPAM

Broadcasts: 127

Audience: 79,227,049

Producer: Conus Communications

Monitoring: Nielsen Sigma; audience numbers computed by Bacon's

DS Simon Productions

Top VNR for 2000: antivirus software for personal digital

assistants, for Neale-May & Partners

Broadcasts: 471

Audience: 17,396,830

Producer: DS Simon Productions

Monitoring: Nielsen Sigma; audience numbers came from the TV stations

themselves and were confirmed by Nielsen; estimated audience was based

on the number of people who receive a cable station

DWJ Television

Top VNR for 2000: dust mite allergy information for Barkley Evergreen &

Partners' client

Broadcasts: 362

Audience: 33,336,132

Producer: DWJ Television

Monitoring: Nielsen Sigma

KEF Media Associates

Top VNR for 2000: Nuveen Investments, controversial commercial that

showed paralyzed actor Christopher Reeve appearing to walk up to accept

an award commemorating the cure of paralysis. Martin Public Relations

hired KEF to produce and distribute the behind-the-scenes making of the


Broadcasts: 1,100

Audience: more than 212,000,000

Producer: KEF Media Associates

Monitoring: Nielsen Sigma; audience number provided by Nielsen media



Top VNR for 2000: AOL/Time Warner merger

Broadcasts: 1,937

Audience: 168,500,000

Producer: Robinson, Lerer & Montgomery

Monitoring: Nielsen Sigma, VeriCheck, NewsIQ and Teletrax

National Satellite Production Media Services

Top VNR for 2000: Rollout of Sony PlayStation 2 for Sony Corporate

Entertainment America

Broadcasts: 1,200

Audience: 89,000,000

Producer: National Satellite Production Media Services

Monitoring: Nielsen Sigma

News/Broadcast Network

Top VNR for 2000: Bridgestone/Firestone product recall

Broadcasts: 5,749

Audience: 263,199,000

Producer: News/Broadcast Network with Fleishman-Hillard/St. Louis

Monitoring: Nielsen Sigma, VMS and Power TV

On the Scene Productions

Top VNR for 2000: NSYNC's 'No Strings Attached' for Jive Records to

publicize the CD release and subsequent concert tour

Broadcasts: 1,799

Audience: 307,642,510

Producer: On the Scene Productions

Monitoring: Nielsen Sigma, VEIL and VMS

Orbis Broadcast Group

Top VNR for 2000: FDA approval of Mifepristone (formerly RU-486), a

nonsurgical early option for ending pregnancy, for DDB Worldwide

Communications Group and the Danco Group

Broadcasts: 2,793

Audience: 79,300,115

Producer: Orbis Broadcast Group

Monitoring: Nielsen Sigma and VMS

TVN Communications Group

Top VNR for 2000: a celebrity blue jeans auction benefiting the Multiple

Sclerosis Society, for Yahoo!

Broadcasts: 543

Audience: 75,098,000

Producer: TVN Communications Group and Yahoo!

Monitoring: Nielsen Sigma and VMS

West Glen Communications

Top VNR for 2000: introduction of new Eli Lilly bipolar disorder drug

for the Chamberlain Group

Broadcasts: 312

Audience: 33,020,000

Producer: West Glen Communications

Monitoring: Nielsen Sigma and VEIL

World Satellite Television News

Top VNR for 2000: Team Rocket Pokemon trading card introduction

Broadcasts: 600

Audience: 74,000,000

Producer: World Satellite Television News

Monitoring: Nielsen Sigma and Power TV.

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